The Difference Between Diets & Cleanses, According To Health Pros

Food and juice cleanses seem to be all the rage lately, but sometimes they can sound a bit diet-y. Which raises the question: Is there a difference between a diet and a cleanse? If so, what are these key differences? After all, both seem to minimize food and caloric intake, right?

Lahana Vigliano, clinical nutritionist and CEO of Nuvitru Wellness, says that the main difference between a diet and a cleanse is that a diet is all about the food you are consuming and tends to be longer-term whereas a cleanse is shorter-term, but not addressing the psychology behind your eating habits. “A good diet is a long-term goal,” she tells TZR. “It includes what your food habits are, such as fasting and time between meals, and may include how much you are consuming, too. Diets that are concerning are ones that are restrictive in the long-term and can hold negative effects to the body. A cleanse, on the other hand, is typically a short-term goal that ‘encourages’ the body to detoxify and ‘cleanse.’ In my opinion, cleanses aren’t really needed.”

She also points out that to truly support detoxification, one needs a variety of foods that give you different micronutrients that fuel liver detoxification — and plenty of protein to give amino acids to fuel the second part of liver detoxification. “While a cleanse can give some relief of symptoms in the short-term, it’s truly not addressing the root cause of what is causing you to ‘cleanse’ in the first place,” she says. “Cleanses can be dangerous because there is usually more intense restriction in what to eat and how much to eat, which may be more harmful and put the body in fight-or-flight mode.”

Registered Dietitian Nutritionist Sherry Roberts, says the first thing to do before breaking down diets and cleanses is to define “diet” and how the word is used. “The term ‘diet’ is often used in two different ways — to identify the overall type of food that one is eating over a long period of time, or used to identify a short-term way of eating to change something about one’s body, often in terms of weight loss,” she tells TZR in an email. “The most successful diets for weight loss are those that place the individual in a calorie deficit that focuses on portion control and offers a variety of foods, including lean proteins, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and low-fat dairy products. Weight loss at one to two pounds per week is a healthy rate for weight loss, which encourages fat loss — and not just water and lean muscle mass loss.” Longer-term, a diet can be seen as an eating plan, which Roberts elaborates on below.

How Cleanses Work (& Don’t Work)

As for cleanses, Roberts says they’re used to detox the body and usually claim rapid weight loss. “Like I mentioned earlier, the weight that is lost on a cleanse diet is often water and lean muscle mass,” she says. “They are generally set for a limited number of days, as they are very restrictive. They typically expect the user to only consume certain fruits and vegetables or a specified liquid.” They often lead to weight gain afterwards, too. “And the weight gained is often more than what was lost during the cleanse to begin with,” says Roberts. “A cleanse is basically a fancy term to say that one is starving themselves for a short period of time.” She says the danger factor comes into play because cleansed diets can lead to nutrient imbalance and many additional health risks, such as low blood sugar and electrolyte imbalances.

Melissa Landry, registered dietitian and coach seconds this notion. “A ‘cleanse’ has no scientific definition,” she tells TZR in an email. “’Cleanses’ usually refer to a short-term protocol, typically of very low-calorie juices meant to detoxify the body and/or spur weight loss. They are completely unnecessary because detoxification happens naturally by our lungs and kidneys. And if it’s not happening? We’d wind up in the hospital pretty quickly!” She adds that the history around cleanses and detoxification is “wild.” “They’re linked to gimmicky ‘snake oil’-like practices,” she says. In other words, selling fake cures to people. “Maintenance Phase The podcast did an amazing deep dive on them, too.” If you want to lose weight or go on a cleanse, it makes sense, she says. “Our culture is seemingly obsessed, and the $72 billion, growing, diet industry, makes sure of it.”

A Caveat When It Comes To Diets Vs. Cleanses

Landry points out a caveat when it comes to diets vs. cleans. When asked which are safer, she says it’s important to define “safe.” “Many people think of acute, physical problems — like electrolyte imbalances — when they think of ‘safe.’ If that is how you measure it, diets are safer than cleanses — but that doesn’t mean diets are ‘safe.’ It simply means that cleanses are more restrictive than diets, and as a result, you will experience negative consequences sooner.” She adds that the body is all about working to restore balance. “The more you restrict and deprive it of its basic needs, including enough energy (spoiler alert: six 120-calorie juices per day aren’t enough for a toddler, never mind a grown woman who works full-time), the more the body will attempt to restore balance, like a pendulum. And the reaction will often be equal, and opposite, to how extreme your cleanse or diet felt.”

Landry says that a common metaphor is, “If I held my breath for a long time, my first breath of air is not likely to be a gentle sip of air. I’d likely take big, panting gasps until my lungs trusted things were balanced again. My lungs will make sure I get enough air. It doesn’t matter if I held my breath by choice or I was held underwater. The body will take over, because that’s its job.” So, too, goes for our bodies, she explains. “It doesn’t matter if you diet by choice or are starving by famine,” she says. “The more intense the restriction, the more the body will act drastically in search of food. It might overconsume, conserving your energy through slowed metabolism, or an obsession-like preoccupation with food. In part, this is why dieting is linked to weight regain, often more than the dieter’s initial baseline weight.” There’s also a mental toll weight cycling takes, and it can have a negative impact on heart health. Dieting increases the likelihood of developing an eating disorder, which is the most deadly mental health diagnosis, Landry says.

Defining Your ‘Diet’

Like Roberts says, dieting is all about defining your diet — is it short-term or longer-term? She says most fad diets are not the healthiest option for weight loss. “Crash diets, or those that restrict major food groups, are not ideal for everyone to follow,” she explains. “In some cases, there may be a medical reason to eliminate certain food groups from one’s diet, but in general, it is not necessary. They often place people into a nutrient imbalance and do not promote a healthy balance in life.” Additionally, diets that promote very restrictive eating will often lead to overeating and an unhealthy fixation with food. “Both of these can initiate a disordered pattern of eating and yo-yo dieting, which is gaining and losing weight over and over again,” she says. “Yo-yo dieting can cause a hormonal imbalance, which impairs the metabolism. Plus, the weight lost in this cycle is mostly water and lean body mass, then the weight gained back is fat mass — and a high percentage of body fat has its own set of health issues.” These may include things like diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Vigliano notes that an example of a restrictive diet is the low FODMAP diet, an elimination diet which restricts foods. “Short-term, this diet can help minimize symptoms (like gas, bloating, and bowel issues), but long-term, it can starve the good bacteria in the large intestine and create dysbiosis (an imbalance of good and bad bacteria), she says. Landry also points out that certain diets may be beneficial, particularly if you have a medical diagnosis from a doctor that warrants one. “Some people have medical concerns that may benefit from changes to their diet,” she explains. “For example, someone who is allergic to wheat may follow a celiac (gluten-free) diet. However, in most cases, you can accomplish this with an ‘add and replace’ versus a ‘restrict and remove’ mentality. This way, you can meet your mental, physical, and emotional needs around food (like being able to attend taco night with the girls with no FOMO) in a more physically therapeutic way.” So coming up with a longer-term “diet” — meal plan — is more realistic and has a better chance of success.

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Roberts agrees that a nutritional, balanced diet that can be followed for the long haul is much safer to use than a temporary cleanse. “A diet that puts the individual at a moderate calorie deficit — but encourages lean protein, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and low-fat dairy products — is much healthier to do,” she says. “It is also something that can be followed for a long period of time that will promote a one- to two-pound weight loss each week.” She adds that a solid diet should also encourage a healthy relationship with food that allows for the person to enjoy food, but in a smaller quantity. “Healthy diets should limit the highly processed foods and encourage more whole foods,” she says. “They should also consist of adequate water intake.” Since water intake needs vary from person-to-person, it is best to speak to your doctor or nutritionist about this. Speaking of which, if you’re unsure of how to begin or reset your eating regimen, she recommends consulting a registered dietitian or nutritionist for unbiased and evidence-based information. “They’ll be able to look at your overall health history and determine a safe eating plan to meet your individual needs,” she says.

Look At Your Relationship With Food

If you want to adjust the way you eat, Landry suggests looking at your current relationship with food. “If your way of eating makes you feel guilty, obsessed, and out of control around food — or in any way physically or mentally unwell — it’s not safe,” she says. “These are important signs to watch out for. If you struggle to eat without leaning on diets, it may mean you need support healing your relationship with food.”

Like Roberts suggested, Landry seconds the idea to find a registered dietitian to help you out. “Some specialize in non-diet approaches, too, like Intuitive Eating,” Landry says. “And registered dietitians are trained to consider your physical, mental, and emotional health around food. A specialized non-diet dietitian will also work to help you improve body image in ways that help you stop dieting whenever you feel negative about what you see in the mirror. This kind of support can help you create sustainable eating habits without guilt or extremes.” Vigliano adds that every person is truly bio-individual, so diets should be customized to that person. “There is no ‘one-size-fits-all,” she says. “The best diet is personalized to you and gives you food that will fuel and nourish your body — and is something sustainable for you in the long run.”

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